Ozzie, Harriet, and James B. Conant

Criticizing college presidents these days is easy—like poking fun at a Kardashian. And so, by current standards, Scott Sherman’s article in The Nation strikes me as mild and balanced. In “University Presidents—Speak Out!,” he takes college leaders to task for not following in the footsteps of such earlier, courageous leaders as James B. Conant, of Harvard, and Robert Hutchins, of the University of Chicago, who took bold public stands on important and contentious issues. Sherman’s position is pretty well summed up by his quotation from Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus: “Once upon a time, university leaders were seen as sculptors of society,” but now they “are chiefly technocrats, agile climbers who reach the top without making too many enemies or mistakes.”

“Once upon a time” is an apt way to begin the last sentence, since its version of history is largely a fairy tale.

I want to acknowledge, first, that I actually agree, in large part, with Sherman’s central point. College presidents today are less likely to speak to contentious issues than were their predecessors of the 1940s or 1950s. And their (our) collective ineffectiveness in making the case for higher education generally, and liberal education in particular, has allowed other voices to shape public discourse in decidedly unhelpful ways.

I offer, however, some correctives to Sherman’s argument, and certainly to the hyperbole of Hacker and Dreifus. While it’s predictable for a sitting president to bristle at the claim that today’s typical college chief executive is a pusillanimous technocrat, bristle I must. Here are the important points that I think Sherman misses:

First, if the nature of the college presidency has changed over the past several decades—requiring more fund raising and financial management—so too has the nature of the world in which the presidency is situated. For better or worse—there is some of both—colleges are no longer viewed with the automatic reverence of the middle of the 20th century. To attribute this change entirely, or even chiefly, to the quietude of presidents is to ignore a set of much more powerful historical trends, including the general dumbing down of our public discourse and the anger provoked by rapidly escalating college costs.  Does anyone seriously believe that if Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, made a long public statement on the importance of gun control, it would change the nature or outcome of what passes for Congressional debate?

Then there is the Internet. James B. Conant had to wrestle with neither Facebook nor Twitter. He lived at a time when public debate proceeded at what would now be a stately pace, and when the worst that someone was likely to do in response to an objectionable presidential statement was write an angry letter. Today petitions, virtual protests, and thousands of fulminating blog posts can arise within hours. The potential impact on the institution of which the president is the most visible representative has been magnified a thousandfold, a situation that naturally inspires a greater degree of caution.

Second, there was no golden age. Individuals like Conant and Hutchins were always the exception—that is why they are so frequently cited—and there are exceptions today, several of whom are mentioned in Sherman’s article. And let us remember that the institutions over which these moral giants were presiding were, at the same time, knowingly carrying out policies of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism that their leaders did little to bring to light or change. Today’s presidents are leading institutions that are far from perfect but are on the whole considerably more open and fair in their practices.  There is a curious Ozzie-and-Harriet-like quality to this yearning for the halcyon days of Ivy League universities in the 1940s.

Maybe most surprising, Sherman makes no mention at all of the critical importance of preserving the college or university as a place where opposing opinions on contentious issues can be openly and civilly expressed. A stand taken by the president on any such issue does not preclude such open expression, but it certainly can inhibit it, particularly among untenured faculty members or other employees who might disagree with the president and feel vulnerable. It is precisely because the president is what Sherman describes—the most influential public voice of the institution—that she or he must weigh the benefits of every statement on a controversial question against the potential stifling of campus debate. Different situations will lead presidents to different conclusions, but it would be a grave lapse in judgment to dismiss this challenge entirely.

I have always believed that courageous views, thoughtfully expressed, are actually less risky than silence in the face of serious wrong. I have spoken out, in my role as president of Macalester College, on many contentious issues, and I have chosen to remain silent on others. What has guided my decision-making, and what I believe guides that of most of my colleagues, is not cowardice or self-interest, but careful judgment about what is in the best interest of the institutions we hold in trust.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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